Presidential Lecture: Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton on Diversity Efforts in Higher Education

Mar 6, 2017


Credit Photo Provided

This year’s Presidential Lecture at Murray State University is titled “We have a dream. Are we living it?” and features prominent MSU alumni Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, Dr. MarTeze Hammonds, and Dr. Walter Bumphus. The three will discuss diversity efforts within higher education on March 9. In a series of interviews ahead of the event, Chad Lampe speaks with Dr. Thornton on Sounds Good.


Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton recently completed a six-year term as a Murray State University Regent. She is the CEO of DreamCatcher Educational Consulting Service where she coaches and provides professional development for new college and university presidents. She is also President Emeritus of Cuyahoga Community College, where she served 20 years as president. Thornton was the first female president at CCC and the first person of color to serve as president of Lakewood Community College.

“My experience has been like many women who are first or many minorities who are first. It is getting used to the culture, getting used to working together and finding the right common ground. And just understanding that we’re all people trying to do the best job we can,” Thornton said. “And that if you place an emphasis on the fact of ‘we’re just people,’ I think eventually everybody gets settled in and moves on with the agenda.”

Because of the spelling of her first name, some of Thornton’s visitors would expect to meet a male upon introduction. Over time, she says people grew accustomed to a woman as president and began to realize the differences and similarities between her leadership style and that of her male predecessors. Thornton says women bring different backgrounds, socialization, and culture to their positions than their male counterparts, which can add a softness to their leadership without diminishing their effectiveness.

“I think people listen and they often are expecting a different outcome for women, maybe for women to be a little more lenient, a little more understanding, a little more mothering, if you will. And that just isn’t the case with leaders,” Thornton said. “Leaders are leaders and you deliver harsh truths as well as wonderful opportunities.”

Thornton says progress in creating inclusive and diverse communities in the world of higher education, as well as in other institutional, business, and organizational cultures, has been slow. She says the inclusion effort has been successful in many ways but adds there is still room for progress.

“We’re still having to create opportunities to be inclusive, to have diversity, and not at the exclusion of anyone else but just giving women minorities who are prepared for those opportunities the chance to compete,” Thornton said.

Thornton argues that inclusion and diversity efforts are important in higher education because students need exposure to individuals of different races, religions, and backgrounds in order to be prepared for success in a multicultural world. She says universities have to be intentional about creating such inclusive climates when recruiting students, faculty, and staff.

“I hope the people attending the presidential panel will hear good ideas, views, as to why inclusion is important and that it’s non-threatening. And that it’s not done at the exclusion of any other group but that it enhances the culture, it enhances the climate, it enhances the student experience, and also the team building within a university. So, I am hoping that they will know this is a positive experience…. It is as it should be, and that is all of us coming together for the good of our students and the good of our community,” Thornton said.

The 2017 Murray State University Presidential Lecture begins at 8:00 p.m. March 9 at the CFSB Center.